Whatever one's reservations about Atal Bihari Vajpayee's political style and his party's ideology, one must heartily and unstintingly welcome his decision to visit Kashmir and launch an initiative for reconciliation and peace. His visit was undoubtedly a landmark: on April 18, he became India's first prime minister to address a public meeting in the valley since the 'azaadi' militancy broke out in 1989. This is itself commendable. It also speaks of a positive change in ground reality. His visit, coming six months after the largely free and fair legislative assembly elections, has kindled new hopes. If his overture is followed up with wise and purposive moves, we could see some real progress in resolving one of the most troubled, complex and bloody disputes in the world.
In Srinagar, Vajpayee attempted a 'double whammy.' He held out the 'hand of friendship' to Pakistan, significantly, from Kashmiri soil. And he offered a dialogue between the Centre and different currents of opinion in Jammu and Kashmir. Both offers were soon hedged in with conditions. And yet, they indicate a welcome softening of New Delhi's stance. The change of tone and tenor has outlasted the somewhat dampening effect of the qualifying statements Vajpayee himself made the following day, reiterating that the talks leading to peace with Pakistan would only take place once there is an end to 'cross-border terrorism.' Yet, the impact of the new tone and tenor is welcome.
Of the two initiatives, on Pakistan, and on domestic arrangements pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir, the first is both more important and likelier to succeed more quickly than the second -- for three reasons. First, Pakistan has responded remarkably positively to India's offer of a dialogue and said it is willing to hold it 'any time, any place and at any level.' It has added that it hopes to work out specific dates for negotiations 'within days.' Second, there is growing recognition within both governments that they cannot indefinitely sustain their mutual hostility. They are under increasing pressure from the major powers to defuse rivalry and reach mutual accommodation.
Only six months ago, India and Pakistan were all ready to go to war. The reasons why they didn't, basically continue to hold today. The global situation emerging after the Iraq war has discomfited both by highlighting their own vulnerability on account of the Kashmir and nuclear issues. Washington, in its most aggressively unilateralist and expansionist phase today, has threatened to extend the Iraq conflict and also turn its attention to South Asia. On March 31, Secretary of State Colin Powell told The New York Times that 'the whole of the subcontinent's problems' were part of the 'broad agenda' that the US plans to address soon. South Asian tensions have figured prominently in the deliberations of Russia, France and Britain too, who have all called for an India-Pakistan dialogue.
And third, a certain momentum favouring a short time-frame for an India-Pakistan meeting has been generated, with the planned visit to South Asia of US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in early May. It is likely that both India and Pakistan will make some positive gestures just ahead of that visit. Minister of State for External Affairs Digvijay Singh says there is already some clarity on certain 'modalities' for a possible India-Pakistan summit and its agenda. More important, Armitage will probably mediate informally between the two governments and 'facilitate' a future summit -- just as he brokered peace between them twice last year.
This doesn't argue that a Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting will certainly happen or succeed. After all, even one terrorist act in India, whether or not sponsored by Pakistan, can scuttle it altogether. Yet, today's circumstances are highly conducive to such a meeting. Its success will depend on how far the two governments are prepared to move away from their stated 'first positions' and explore a new détente or agenda of peaceful coexistence.
This, in the first place, means they must accept war is simply not an option. Neither side can win it. India's conventional superiority over Pakistan (measured in balances of forces and equipment) has steadily eroded from 1.75:1 (in the Bangladesh war) to 1.56:1 in 1990, to barely 1.22:1 now. (The winning ratio is normally 2:1 or higher). And their nuclear capability has been a 'great leveller.' Nuclear wars cannot be won; they must never be fought.
To make the summit successful, Islamabad will have to drop its traditional emphasis on a plebiscite on Kashmir and 50-year-old UN Security Council resolutions. More important, it will have to verifiably give up supporting militant violence in Kashmir as an instrument to coerce India to the negotiating table. It has to recognise that its support to terrorist militants who kill innocent civilians at will has done nothing to advance the cause of the Kashmiri people. Equally, New Delhi must drop its formal, stated, position that Jammu and Kashmir is 'an inalienable part of India.' The issue must be opened up. The Kashmiri people must be involved in settling it.
India must also take the Simla agreement of 1972 seriously. Under it, all bilateral issues are to be resolved through peaceful mutual discussion. So far, New Delhi has cited the Simla accord mainly to oppose a multilateral dialogue -- but never once discussed Kashmir bilaterally with Pakistan. Changing all this won't be easy, but if a robust beginning is made on the basis of some mutually accepted principles, the process of reconciliation could get rolling. At times like these, process is everything.
The biggest obstacles here will be the hawks in the two countries who have a stake in perpetuating a state of mutual hostility. In Pakistan, they are jihadi Islamists both inside and outside the army. In India, they are the BJP's right wingers who oppose reconciliation with Pakistan. Their leader, Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, played a major role in torpedoing the 2001 Agra summit. At the last minute, he vetoed a draft declaration after Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf and their foreign offices had agreed to it. Vajpayee failed to assert himself and allowed the summit to collapse.
This time around, the BJP has supported Vajpayee's peace gesture, but somewhat reluctantly. Its first response on April 18 was to oppose it. Earlier, it enthusiastically welcomed Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha's diatribe against Pakistan as a 'fitter case' than Iraq for pre-emptive war. Ideological antipathy to Pakistan apart, this is an important election year for the BJP. In four major state assembly elections, it's pitted against the Congress. Rather than embark on a new, uncertain, Kashmir and Pakistan policy, it might be tempted to fall back upon a hawkish line which appeals to its urban elite constituency.
Piloting a peace process will need statesmanship. Even more difficult will be the domestic Kashmir reconciliation agenda. Here, the Centre has no clarity whatsoever, although people like Vajpayee sense that J&K today offers a great opportunity because of its relatively credible election, and the installation of a state government which generates hope with its 'healing touch' -- despite the impediments created by a constantly carping BJP and an uncooperative Centre.
But the Centre is fumbling at the level of strategy. It said it would talk to all those who abjure violence. Yet, it refused to invite the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, representing 23 different groups, to talks. But it should know there is little political sense in talking only to 'elected representatives,' for most of whom J&K's integration with India is unproblematic. It is the others that it must win over. They include the APHC. The Hurriyat's influence may have declined. But it still represents a significant current of opinion in Kashmir. The Hurriyat would of course like the government to apply the 'Nagaland formula' to Kashmir: talks at a high political level; exclusively with one group; and a ceasefire. In reality, there are too many differences between Kashmir and Nagaland, and the APHC and NSCN. But talking to the Hurriyat on a non-exclusive basis is surely necessary.
The government's interlocutor N N Vohra didn't invite the Hurriyat, and it has decided not to meet him. Vohra has a vague, confused brief. He has taken an excessively cautious, even timidly bureaucratic, approach. He published his itinerary in Kashmir's newspapers, but didn't invite specific groups! This attitude must change. The Centre must realise that Kashmir's past experience with interlocutors -- whether official (Messrs K C Pant and Arun Jaitley), or unofficial (Messrs R K Mishra, A S Dulat and Ram Jethmalani), has not been happy. To have some credibility, Vohra must pro-actively, aggressively, talk to all currents of opinion as a step towards an apex-level political dialogue, along with a ceasefire and termination of hostilities.
It is hard to see the Centre, especially the home ministry, going this far. A breakthrough on Kashmir will probably have to wait upon serious progress in India-Pakistan relations. But the process of reconciliation must start, both internally and externally. Far too much is at stake -- not least, the lives of millions who could turn into radioactive dust should war break out. There is simply no alternative to peace.
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